"A Eunuch Births a Church"


When an angel of the Lord tells you to get up and go, what do you do? What Philip did was obey: he got up and went. Philip was one of the twelve original disciples of Jesus, and after Jesus was resurrected and ascended into heaven, and after the fulfillment of Jesus’s promise to send the Holy Spirit, Philip was part of this new church movement. These Jewish men who confessed Jesus as the Messiah, they’re figuring out what this Jesus movement is going to look like.


They’re starting to organize, and Philip had already been named a deacon in the early church, one sent specifically to serve. Philip also preached, and he was good at it. He got the assignment to preach in Samaria, and Samaritans didn’t always get along with Jews, but here are the Samaritans, listening to Philip and confessing their faith in Jesus.


That’s when the angel of the Lord tells Philip: time to move on to the next place, the road from Jerusalem to Gaza. So, not even a city or a destination, just go to the road. Weird, but he does it.


As Ignatius of Loyola says, it’s not hard to obey when we love the one whom we obey.


And the Spirit speaks to Philip and says, go over and talk to the guy riding in a chariot, and Philip does it, just like running alongside the chariot, and turns out, the guy in the chariot is reading out loud from the book of Isaiah. Philip recognizes it and says, hey, do you understand what you’re reading? And the guy in the chariot is like, how am I supposed to understand unless someone explains it to me? So he invites him into the chariot. And Philip explains how this passage about the suffering servant is fulfilled in Jesus Christ.


I wonder at what point did Philip realize who he was talking to: a high-level official in the court of the Ethiopian queen, in charge of her entire treasury. And this high-level official is identified as a eunuch. A eunuch is someone born with male genitalia but who has been castrated, meaning his penis or his testicles were crushed or removed, taking away his ability to have biological children. And if the man was castrated before reaching puberty, which apparently happened sometimes, that would have changed his physical attributes as he developed as well.


Now is the fact that this man is a eunuch the most important detail about him? Is a person’s gender identity—that they are female or male or intersex—the most important thing about them? Or is a person’s gender expression—how masculine or feminine do they appear on the outside—is that the most important thing about them? I’d say no, that is not the most important detail, but it’s the only detail we know about the man. We don’t even know his name.


Hebrew Bible scholar Reverend Doctor Wil Gafney gave the man a name, borrowing from the Ethiopian tradition of naming royal servants after their monarchs. Dr. Gafney writes that history has preserved the names of Ethiopian eunuchs who served in Rome during the Roman era: Abdimelek, meaning servant of the king, or Melech, which literally means “king” but indicates servitude.


So in this tradition, Dr. Gafney names this servant “Abdimalkah,” which means “servant of the queen”, in Amharic, the contemporary Semitic language of Ethiopia. He had a name, and Dr. Gafney writes, “the fact that [his name] has been lost to us does not mean that he should be stripped of his dignity along with whatever else he may have had to surrender for his career.”[1]


Abdimalkah was the servant of the Kandake, queen of the Ethiopians. The Kandakes were the queens and queen mothers of Meroe, the area on the Nile River; Dr. Gafney calls it a “queendom” since the women were the rulers. The Kandakes were well-regarded warriors and priestesses of the goddess Isis. And because the people of this region had a long history with people of the Jewish faith, there were still Jews in the area.


So the Holy Scriptures of the people of Israel were not entirely foreign to Ethiopians, and here Abdimalkah, the servant of the queen, has his own copy. Indeed, Abdimalkah had just visited Jerusalem, where he had gone to worship.


And what was his experience like when he went to worship? Did he try to enter the temple? Would he have been allowed in? The laws in Deuteronomy state “no one whose testicles are crushed or whose penis is cut off shall be admitted to the assembly of the Lord.”[2] Was Abdimalkah excluded from the worshipping assembly, left at the margins because of the status of his physical body? When Abdimalkah asks Philip, “What’s to prevent me from being baptized?” was he sighing, expecting to find out exactly why he would be excluded this time again?


Even if our culture is no longer requiring people to mutilate their genitals as a condition of their employment, there are people who know deeply what it is like to be excluded because of their gender identity or gender expression. There are trans people being targeted to the point of states trying to make laws about how trans people will access healthcare, who gets to play sports, even where to go to the bathroom.


The Reverend Doctor Mona West writes this:

“Queer people of faith would read this story as our own. We are kept from full participation in the Church because of what is perceived as our outsider sexual status. We have been denied ordination and communion. Our relationships are also not blessed by the Church. At best we are allowed to attend worship if we ‘leave our sexuality at the door.’ We are allowed marginal participation in the body of Christ if we adopt a ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy, or if we promise not to be a ‘practicing’ homosexual. Like the Ethiopian eunuch, we have struggled to make sense of Scripture, to find our place in it, when others would use it to condemn us. The good news for us is that there have been those ‘Philips’ who have interpreted Scripture in ways that have been empowering for the queer community.”[3]


Abdimalkah knows what it is like to be excluded, to be regarded as an outsider for living in a queer body. But Philip knows how to invite him in, how to explain Scripture—maybe Philip also knew the rest of the story of Isaiah. Just a couple of chapters beyond the suffering servant passage, there’s this:

“Do not let the foreigner joined to the Lord say, ‘The Lord will surely separate me from his people’; and do not let the eunuch say, ‘I am just a dry tree.’ For thus says the Lord: to the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths, who choose the things that please me and hold fast my covenant, I will give, in my house and within my walls, a monument and a name better than sons and daughters. I will give them an everlasting name that shall not be cut off. And the foreigners who join themselves to the Lord, to minister to him, to love the name of the Lord, and to be his servants, all who keep Sabbath, and do not profane it, and hold fast my covenant—these I will bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer; their burnt offerings and their sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples. Thus says the Lord God who gathers the outcasts of Israel, I will gather others to them besides those already gathered.”[4]


Perhaps Philip didn’t know how far and how expansive the Gospel would be, but the Holy Spirit knew exactly what she was doing here. God purposefully chose for the Gospel to be shared with a Jewish Ethiopian royal official who could not physically bear children, a eunuch who was regarded as a sexual and social outsider…and chose this person to give birth to the church in Africa. Which exists to this day.


Jesus tells his disciples, “I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.” In this image of the vine and branches, we imagine the way a plant grows—the only way to live is to remain connected. We are connected to Jesus, and that connects us to each other as well.


In this season of Easter, remembering again the things Jesus said to his disciples and revisiting the stories of the Acts of the Holy Spirit among the first disciples as the Church is growing and being built, we on the earth have not yet ascended to heaven—the resurrected Jesus has a body, just as we are embodied and enfleshed humans. Our bodies, our gender identity and gender expression, these are not incidental—this is part of who we are, part of how God created us and how God loves us, for all of who we are.


Thanks be to the Ethiopian eunuch who dared to trust in God. Thanks be to Philip who dared to interpret Scripture as a bold welcome. Thanks be to God.


Amen.


Pastor Cheryl


[1] https://www.wilgafney.com/2012/05/04/black-jewish-and-queer-the-ethiopian-eunuch/ [2] Deuteronomy 23: 1 [3] The Queer Bible Commentary, page 572. [4] Isaiah 56: 3-8





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